“Turtle, Lion and Bear”: Chinese artist He Xiangyu at Qiao Space, Shanghai

He Xiangyu’s “Turtle, Lion and Bear” is the first solo show in Shanghai by the Beijing- and Berlin-based artist.

Shanghai’s Qiao Space presents a major exhibition of He Xiangyu’s work with traditional paintings and drawings as well as an immersive environment with multiple screen projections.

"He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear", 18 March - 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Image courtesy Qiao Space.

“He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear”, 18 March – 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Image courtesy Qiao Space.

The L-shaped arrangement of Qiao Space is exaggerated in the presentation of Beijing- and Berlin-based He Xiangyu’s “Turtle, Lion and Bear”, his first solo show in Shanghai running until 8 June 2017. On the outside wall are traditional paintings and drawings, some aspiring to realism, and others to thoughtful and painstaking preparation. The wall is white and the brilliant yellow of many of the works makes it luminous. Inside is a dark immersive environment, where many flat monitors are back to back in glass boxes, creating a hall of mirrors. The multiple reflections reproduce and overlay the screen images, “forming an endless space” as He suggested in an interview with Art Radar.

He Xiangyu, 'Turtle, Lion and Bear', 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

He Xiangyu, ‘Turtle, Lion and Bear’, 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

The difference between the inside effect and the outer wall is in keeping with the multifaceted nature of He’s practice. Previously this has included a leather tank, Tank Project (2011), realistic silicone figures The Death of Marat (2011) and Coca-Cola, reduced by long evaporation to form rocks in Cola Project (2009-2012); therefore, the radical diversity of the two types of work in this show is not without precedent in the artist’s eclectic oeuvre.

The exhibition is a collaboration with White Cube, following last year’s Martin Creed exhibition at Qiao Space, a collaboration with Hauser & Wirth. These ventures extend a growing trend for galleries without a presence in Mainland China to pop-up adjacent to established venues and events. Another instance would be Timothy Taylor Gallery’s brief show of Alex Katz opposite the West Bund Art and Design Fair, close to Qiao space in Shanghai’s growing Xuhui Riverside Art & Culture Pilot Zone.

He Xiangyu, 'Turtle, Lion and Bear', 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

He Xiangyu, ‘Turtle, Lion and Bear’, 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

Sleeping Beauties

It is the video installation, Turtle, Lion and Bear (2015) that gives the exhibition its title. The work was first seen at La Biennale de Lyon in France. Within the museum-like display cases 25 headshots of humans and animals yawning in slow motion appear on screens. Some are blurred while others gleam in high definition. The intention is to transmit the infectious reflex to the spectator. He said of the work in a previous interview for Art Radar:

For instance, the people that yawn do not cover their mouth, just like animals do not cover their mouths when they yawn. So it is a very direct response to this stimulation. It is just part of the normal process. I think our civilization constrains us in some ways.

Entering the room, visitors find themselves in a kaleidoscope. It is not possible to gauge the arrangement of the space or to trace the images that confront you back to their source on a particular screen. Disorientation in the darkness counters the normal constraints and the visitor is freed to consider speculative associations.

He Xiangyu, 'Turtle, Lion and Bear', 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

He Xiangyu, ‘Turtle, Lion and Bear’, 2015, 25-channel video (colour, silent) installed in 21 vitrines. Installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

The scenario, with the protagonists, both human and animal, encased in glass and on the verge of sleep, resonates with various narrative traditions, particularly Snow White (The Brothers Grimm, 1854). In the story, the ostracised princess Snow White is poisoned and falls into a magical sleep; assuming that she is dead she is also presented under glass, in a coffin. Extended periods of sleep also feature in other fairy tales. In He’s work, the on-screen yawns imply that they too are lifted from other possible scenarios, and in the case of the animals from the context of a wildlife documentary. The options are broad in the case of the humans; from a Pietà in the Renaissance Christian tradition to the lotus eaters in Homer’s epic The Odyssey to suspended animation in interstellar science fiction stories. The yawn connotes prior emotions or physical states and the onset of dreams or oblivion. It is for the spectator to infer the cause, be it exhaustion, lethargy or narcosis.

"He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear", 18 March - 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Works from the series "Lemon Paintings", installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space. "He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear", 18 March - 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Works from the series "Lemon Paintings", installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

“He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear”, 18 March – 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Works from the series “Lemon Paintings”, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

Zest

The outer part of the exhibition is a different scenario, consisting of many paintings and drawings that extend the artist’s series of works entitled “Lemon Flavored” (2014-16). The signature citron yellow of these works is here also deployed in a single large canvas that dominates the display. This shows a simple grid of white lemons, glowing almost lilac in complementary contrast to the intense background hue. According to Lida Zeitlin Wu, writing for Leap magazine, “Lemon Flavored” represents He’s desire to express a correlation between colour and taste.”

Although He’s works use many different materials and take many different forms, human perception and response is his primary medium. He seeks a visceral, more than a rational, response. Numerous diagrammatic proposals suggest a meticulous scientific exploration of different permutations of the simple lemon motif, in terms of precise shade, material and organisation. Lying bare, the convoluted planning that has gone into the execution of works, that themselves appear guileless, still provides little clue as to purpose.

"He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear", 18 March - 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Works from the series "Lemon Paintings", installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

“He Xiangyu: Turtle, Lion and Bear”, 18 March – 8 June 2017, Qiao Space, Shanghai. Works from the series “Lemon Paintings”, installation view. Image courtesy the artist and Qiao Space.

Writing for Frieze, Sophie Knezic points out the artist’s longstanding use of yellow, in earlier works such as paint on doors (Sorry, 2011-12), and “transmuted into gold and hidden in an egg (1500 g Gold, 62 g. Protein, 2013-14)”. She goes on to point out:

In Chinese culture, yellow symbolises happiness and the ‘yang’ principle (the light to the dark of ‘yin’), while in the plant world it is classified as one of the carotenoid pigments that function to attract seed-dispersing organisms. As a spectral colour, yellow is a primary that cannot be separated into other colours nor produced by an amalgam of them – it is pure potency.

In the current display, this potency is counterbalanced by the exhaustive documentation. This suggests that the spectator is coerced into a predetermined reaction tested against He’s own research. The idea is borne out by his remark to Roxanne Goldberg in an interview for Die 8 der Wege:

When I was in China, I could make work out of social relationships, but then I couldn’t transplant my practice in the United States after I moved here, so I started to practice by myself, in my own body.

Study for the "Lemon Paintings", 2016-2017. Image courtesy the artist, Qiao Space and White Cube.

He Xiangyu, study for the “Lemon Paintings”, 2016-2017. Image courtesy the artist, Qiao Space and White Cube.

Study for the "Lemon Paintings", 2016-2017. Image courtesy the artist, Qiao Space and White Cube.

He Xiangyu, study for the “Lemon Paintings”, 2016-2017. Image courtesy the artist, Qiao Space and White Cube.

Suck on a Lemon

It hard to sense the overlap between separate projects due to the extreme difference in approach, but by bringing together two contrasting works in one place Qiao Space makes it possible to consider different ways of exploring empathy. In the works of the “Lemon Flavoured”, it is exemplified in the phrase “go suck a lemon!”. These otherwise enigmatic words derive their meaning from the identification of a common experience. In the words of Nobel prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda,

From the hemispheres of a star, the most intense liqueur of nature, unique, vivid, concentrated, born of the cool, fresh lemon, of its fragrant house, its acid, secret symmetry.

It is impossible to predict what He will do next but his most recent work, the documentary film entitled The Swim (2017), continues to explore the mouth, even if obliquely, in the form of oral history. The film is set in He’s hometown of Kuandian, on the border with North Korea, and incorporates interviews with veterans of the Korean War.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Chinese, independent art space, video, drawing, Shanghai

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